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RELIGION Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Henley government parish churches priests mass churchwardens account expenditures funerals bridges Purgatory memorial services

Subject: Provisions for the parish church and memorial services for the deceased
Original source: Bodleian Library, Henley Assembly Book, vol.1, ff.18-20, vol.1, f.10
Transcription in: P.M. Briers, ed. Henley Borough Records: Assembly Books i-iv, 1395-1543. Oxfordshire Record Society, 1960, 26, 27, 29, 76.
Original language: Latin
Location: Henley
Date: 15th century


On that day [20 October 1419] it was agreed through the assent of the warden and the entire community that two chaplains who are of honest demeanour, good reputation, and are good singers of plain-song should each receive annually from the bridge-keepers £6 for their services as chantry priests, and living quarters adequate for their needs. And furthermore that the chaplains shall supervise the choir at appropriate times, both on the eve and on the day of a festival.


Also on that day, the warden and community of the town agreed that bridge-keepers Hugh Bakere and John Tubbe, and their successors, shall keep and observe an obit in memory of Hugh Cooke and his wife Alice once a year in Henley church, beginning on 12 November of this year and so from year to year until a full twenty years have elapsed. This out of consideration for the fact that Hugh and Alice contributed many items to the parish church of the town. For which reason the warden and community wish and grant, for themselves and their successors, that the bridge-keepers then in office expend on the memorial obit forty pence, in the following way. First, to each chaplain of the parish church who celebrates there and attends the exequies, 2d. Also, in offerings at the five Masses, 5d. The rest is to be spent on wax, on the clergy (2d. each for their labour), and on bread and ale; should there be anything left, it is to be distributed among the poor. In regard to that forty pence spent by the bridge-keepers, they shall have allowance made for it when they render their accounts before the warden and community.


On that day [7 November 1419] Thomas Barnavyle and John Curteys churchwardens and William Logge, supervisor of the upkeep [of the church], presented their accounts before the community, as set out in a roll of their receipts. Notably, of £67.17s.2d and of 26s.8d. Out of which they paid for 9 fothers and 400 lb. of lead, bought at the price of £5.16s.6d per fother; total £53.13s. In expenses incurred on the labour of plumbers, on other work on the church and its bells, for [re]paving the church, on ornaments and vestiments for the church, and for a new missal, as set out in that same roll, £21.6s.4d. Total of all expenditures on lead, £74.19s.4d. And therefore there is owed to William Logge, 5.16s.6d.


On that day [1 June 1420] it was ordained by the consent of the warden and community there that on the day the obit of any person there [i.e. of the town] may be rung by the ministers of the church on a single bell. That is, whichever bell is wished, according to the wishes and pleasure of the friends of the deceased, is to be rung in the appropriate fashion; they paying to the ministers of the church 2d. for the ringing and their labour. Also that on memorial days the trental or anniversary of the deceased may be rung on four bells in the appropriate fashion, paying to the ministers 2d. plus bread and drink. Anyone who does anything contrary to this ordinance is to pay 6s.8d into the community money-box.


The account of John Wryght and John Elam wardens of the church and bridge of Henley, covering the accounting period from 25 March 1472 to the same date following, that is for an entire year; audited 23 May 1474. The two Johns accounted for £31.1s.¼d from the rents payable to the church, as set out in the court roll. Also, they accounted for 30s. in arrears from the previous account. And they accounted for 10s. collected at the church porch in Easter week. And they accounted for 20s. [paid] for various interments within the church. Total, £34.1s.¼d. Out of which were paid various costs and expenses made by the wardens, as itemized in the [written] account they submitted for examination, £32.19s. At the close of their accounting, they owe 22s. Of which 10s. was paid out for the purchase of stone. Also 14d. to William Styleman for making 1 tallow [candle].


On the same day [14 September 1476] it was agreed and ordained by the warden, bridge-keepers, and the entire community of the town, that henceforth no-one from inside or outside the town might have the largest bell, of the five great bells hanging in the bell-tower of the parish church of Henley, rung at his exequies or Masses at which the body is present, nor at any obit or anniversary whatever in the future, unless he pays 4d. into the communal money-box for [having] that single bell [rung] on each occasion. That is, 4d. for when his body is present at the exequies and Masses, and likewise at his obit or anniversary, on top of the fee due the clerics and others who undertake the ringing. But that everyone, depending on his social standing, may have at his decease, when his body is present, an appropriate amount of tolling with a single one of the other four great bells, at the exequies or at another time as suits those who will be in attendance. And that everyone may have at his exequies, obit, or anniversary, three appropriate tolls with the four bells, and not more. At the time of the Masses with the body present, and at the burial, as well as at the Masses of the obit or anniversary, [there may be] appropriate tolling with the same four bells, and not more.


Henley-on-Thames provides an instance of the authorities in a town of very modest size and modest means exercising its concerns for the religious life of the community. It was not uncommon in the last century or so of the Middle Ages for borough authorities to be called upon to play some supervisory role in regard to the maintenance of chantries or services for the dead. In the case of Henley, a single-parish settlement, the community and its representatives were that much more closely involved in the affairs of the parish church.

Henley's urban status was recognized by the central government by at least the 1240s, and it is in the same century that we first hear of bridge-keepers there. The town had as its executive officer the warden, who appears to have originally been the head of the Merchant Gild through which the community was organized – by the fifteenth century the burgess community and the gild were one and the same – and its aspirations were achieved; judicial administration was in the hands of the lord of the manor and law enforcement carried out by bailiffs, who were manorial officials, even though their election was a privilege that the community had won. Other than these, and with a formal town council not apparently emerging until the reign of Henry VI, local government also included two constables and the two bridge-keepers.

In 1385 a townsman obtained licence to alientate in mortmain rents from 115 properties towards the maintenance of the bridge across the Thames and a chantry in the town church. Thereafter, if not before, the bridge and the church were associated administratively. The bridge-keepers were responsible for administering the rents of such a staggering number of properties, for a small community. By the end of the fifteenth century, the "bailiffs of the church and bridge on Henley were accounting regularly for these revenues and the way they were spent on upkeep of bridge and church. At the earlier end of the century, the churchwardens were accounting for expenditures; they were also elected officials of the borough, but perhaps not on an annual basis. The work of the churchwardens called on revenues additional to those assigned the bridge-keepers, such as burgess entrance fees. In 1415 the offices of bridge-keeper and churchwarden were held by the same pair, but this appears an exception; after 1429 the offices were combined, and the office of the pontenarii is actually described in 1433 as procuratores ecclesie et pontis.

After a brief experiment in 1434, an additional set of officials was created in 1441, by ordinance, to be keepers and supervisors of all goods belonging to the church and to act as holy-water clerks; their duties involved receiving income associated with burials (including bequests to the fabric of the church) and using it for repairs, and to look after the furnishings, books, vestments, etc. of the church. In 1449 we hear of a special commission of townsmen appointed to look after renovations to the bell-tower and its bells; but this effort apparently proved too much for, in 1455, it was necessary to sell a large new-made bell in order to pay borough debts, but what remained was to be used to make smaller bells. Four years later a new commission was appointed, to collect alms for the churchworks. The work on the bell-tower went ahead and in 1462 a contract was let to build a steeple atop it; by the following year the collectors were able to turn over to the churchwardens £69.15s.2d for the work on the bell-tower, and in 1464 or 1465 the hanging of the bells was begun. In 1473 a record was entered of the five new bells and their weights and total value (over £91). The preoccupation with the bells was because their tolling was an important part of the ceremonies marking the death, and subsequent anniversaries of the death, of townspeople – reminding others to pray for the soul of the deceased.

The concept of Purgatory, posited in the twelfth century and receiving official recognition in the thirteenth, established in the Late Middle Ages a core belief that gave tremendous impetus to the saying of prayers for the souls of the deceased, and to the purchase of such prayers in one's last will and testament – for those who could afford it, by the foundation of chantries dedicated to saying a special Mass for the soul(s) of the founder(s) along with prayers for others the founder designated. Prayers could help relieve the suffering of the souls parked in Purgatory until they would be released to the Last Judgement. For the poor who could not afford to buy prayers, general prayers were said at every Mass and each November, on All Souls Day, a special Mass was dedicated to every soul in Purgatory. But prayers said for specific individuals were considered far more efficacious.

Consequently, services for remembrance of the dead – obits, or anniversaries – became an important element in church celebrations, filling in gaps between the major daily services. Whereas today most churches are quiet for the greater part of a day, in the Late Middle Ages, many had activities going on throughout the day. Only a handful of townspeople were wealthy enough to be able to found chantries. The less expensive alternative was to arrange for an anniversary each year; like a chantry, it was typically funded by endowing the church where the anniversary was to be celebrated with property or rents, or with a sum of money expected to support a finite number of anniversaries. These memorial services could sometimes be as elaborate as the original exequies, or obsequies, at the funeral. Although far less frequent than chantry services, they compensated somewhat by involving larger numbers of attendants to pray for the soul of the deceased. Another tool for remembrance was the bederoll, listing the names of deceased parishioners, read out in church. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we find bedemen, or bellmen, appearing in the roster of borough officialdom, part of their duties being to go round town announcing deaths or anniversaries; Henley's earliest record of such an appointment is in 1426, although the fact that the appointee was handed the bell of office suggests that he was not the first.



"from the bridge-keepers"
I.e. from the borough revenues collected by the bridge-keepers, or Bridgemen, of which there were two elected annually.

Funeral rites and/or the annual memorial service.

For candles.

"William Logge"
He was the warden then in office.

A measure traditionally applied to lead in England, its weight might vary between about 2100 lb and 2600 lb. Unless the financial calculations in the record are inaccurate, the additional amount of 400 lb must have been charged at a significantly higher rate.

"23 May 1474"
The date is suspect as the record identifies it as a Wednesday; it was in fact a Monday.

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Created: March 14, 2003. © Stephen Alsford, 2003

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